Being and Non-Being (Online)

Being and Non-Being (Online)

(Part 1 of Digital Dharma Series)

October 2019 

After hearing the long undulating sounds of the bell, Selina slowly massaged her hands and face, tenderly transitioning out of the guided meditation. A light, crisp pitch of the smaller bell signaled for her and others to stand up and practice walking meditation, or use the restroom if needed. But as usual, Seline gently walked out of her living room, silently stepping into her baby daughter’s room. Over the wooden crib walls, she was in the same fetal position, tucked away under a light blue cotton blanket, and looking as peacefully still as if she too had just benefited from the meditation happening next door.

Seline’s peace turned into a soft joyous smile as she gazed for a few more moments, and then as quietly as she came in, slowly walked back to her sitting cushion on the floor. She took a few conscious breaths after resettling into her seated half lotus posture, and then very mindfully reopened her laptop. There was her beloved Sangha – seated beautifully and quietly on her screen, having just finished walking meditation and waiting for the Dharma sharing circle to begin. Present and at ease, Seline was with her Monday evening online Sangha, and she felt fully at home.

Even just 10 years ago, this kind of connection was impossible for most people. Now, hundreds of practitioners around the world, spanning multiple languages, are connecting and supporting each other’s mindfulness practice through virtual mindfulness communities. It’s the perfect fit for single parents like Seline, who sorely missed her local Sangha’s support and strength in person. But now, she can engage once or twice a week with her online group while never having to roam farther than the sound of her baby’s voice.

Due to the calls of parenthood, young parents often feel left out of Sangha life during the most challenging period of their family’s development. Not everyone has a grandparent willing to stay over while one or both parents go to Sangha every week, and most retreat centers don’t have children’s programs until the kids are 5 or 6 years old. But now, the Sangha can come right into their own living room, and the bell is never louder than one’s headphones.

Young parents are not the only ones connecting through online mindfulness communities; this modality seems to be born out our changing world that many others live in as well. Consider Joseph, a 34 year old video producer from the UK, who needs a stable source of motivation to meditate and emotinal support to balance his demanding profession life. This Wednesday, Joseph is in Barcelona, far away from home. But it’s no problem –  his Sangha is traveling with him, just an hour later than usual. He hooks up online, opens up Zoom, and finds a dozen friends already waiting for him, ready to meditate.

Like many others in the business world, Joseph is continually traveling to different cities and countries around Europe, spending just a fraction of each month at home. His online Sangha has become the most reliable companions on his path, having been with the group for 3 years strong. Others in his Sangha have been deepening friendships with each other for even longer. Every week since 2012, each of them takes a 90 minute break from their hectic lives to meditate, read or listen to a Dharma teaching, and discuss how the practice is going in their every day lives. Everything is live, in the moment, online. Some of the members have moved multiple times, having left family, friends, jobs, pets, neighbors, and even the coffee shop and corner store owner. Through it all, no mater where they move, the Sangha keeps showing up, right in his living room.

So where can one find or create such a virtual Sangha home?  Plumline.org is has been the central nursery of newborn online groups in the Plum Village tradition. Anyone with the intention to practice can start or join one. Over two dozen groups exist in multiple languages, with different themes of practice, meeting every day of the week. The demand has been so great that some of the groups have had to close their attendance to newcomers.

Online mindfulness gatherings to prepare for the Greece Sangha Service Project, 2018

I recently asked Plumline visionary and co-founder, Alipasha Razzaghipour about why he thought these groups have bloomed in recent years. Combining enthusiasm with a rational depiction of the digital world, Ali shared “Technology is redefining the intersections of space and contact in our world, radically changing the way we relate to distance and travel.”

Ali recounted that a dozen years ago, the first online groups were based on text messages. “I will begin meditating now,” typed one member into their Sangha chat box. “Okay, me too. Enjoy your sit,” confirmed another. Sounds pretty bland, especially compared to the technology of video calls today. But just being aware that another Sangha member was meditating together with them in that moment, despite not being able to see or speak to them, was already very supportive and beneficial. Not everyone can join a local group, for any number of reasons, so being with a virtual Sangha is better than none at all – even a texting Sangha! “Online Sanghas are not for everyone” Ali plainly admitted. “But in-person Sanghas are not for everyone either.” While in-person Sanghas have been my preference over the years, it’s a good point he makes!

Practicing mindfulness with others non-locally has other advantages. It presents a golden opportunity for small niche groups of practitioners to come together in ways that were never before possible. Consider someone living in a small city in Germany who wants to form a mindfulness group that is also dedicated to exploring environmental issues. Whereas her small local mindfulness group doesn’t have the interest, across the US it will be easy to find a dozen (or five or six dozen) practitioners with that particular calling.

Another great example is with young adults who consider aspiring to the Order of Interbeing (OI), which offers tremendous opportunity to deepen practice and study of the 14 Mindfulness Trainings. The Order has been a predominantly older white middle class community in the US, and it’s been challenging to cultivate a more diverse and younger generation. Having multiple young adults in one region with this calling is rare, so young adults or people of color can feel isolated given the generational and cultural gaps. Last year, we were able to easily form not just one, but two online groups of young adults with diverse backgrounds who are enthusiastic about studying the trainings with their peers. The monthly group has been filled with creativity and connection and would never have been possible without a virtual space to connect to. Thank you technology!

Alipasha admitted that there are a number of drawbacks of meeting online, depending on the digital platforms used. For one, the degree of transmission from teacher to student practitioner or peer to peer is not the same online as in person. Perhaps that gap will never be fully closed. Ali believes that’s it’s essential that new practitioners really taste the experience of mindfulness in person first, whether during a retreat or by visiting a local group. Ideally, people can both practice in person as well as online to complement their practice opportunities. This is becoming a reality for many people in the Sangha, who wish to connect locally as well as with niche groups across the globe. Other niche groups include the Earthholders Sangha dedicated to mindfully embracing environmental justice, a facilitator Sangha, Sanghas who speak in Mandarin, Spanish, Vietnamese, French, Italian, and Polish! This may not seem like a big deal for those who live in those countries. But to live in Vietnam and speak Polish at Sangha, or live in Poland and speak Vietnamse to your mindfulness group can be quite a special mindfulness opportunity!

Aside from the many incredible benefits, there are other obvious challenges that come with using a computer to support your meditation practice. Ali jokingly shared, “More than once I’ve noticed during our circle sharing, that someone is wearing glasses and I can see the light reflecting a changing computer screen.” He laughed, noting “We are in fact inviting people to meditate and listen deeply to each other right in front of perhaps the biggest source of addiction in their lives – their screens.”

While meditating online may have its disadvantages, it’s obviously working for many people who are clearly sticking with it over time. Online video groups such as Heart Sangha and World Interbeing Sangha are celebrating their 9th and 10th birthdays together!  With such longevity, these groups are undoubtedly providing a steady source of Dharma nourishment to people, with no signs of slowing down. Plumline already has almost 30 groups meeting regularly, speaking in seven different languages. 

As technology continues to advance its capacities to provide more lifelike experiences for users, the degrees of separation continue to dwindle. When asked what the future holds for online communities, Ali is clear that this growth has just begun. “We’ve seen the evolution of digital Sanghas fly forward in the last few decades; from text based Sanghas, to multiple person phone calls, to Skype, to Google Hangouts, and now to Zoom. Just watch, it won’t be long before we are meditating together in a virtual meditation hall.”

Wow, it all sounds very cool and exciting for the future of Sangha life. But I think our capacities to connect with meaning and flexibility right now is already pretty good. I certainly won’t be holding my breath for it.


“Breathe You are Online”


XR Meets PV

Times Square , NYC

October 2019 

I sat down on the cool stone bench at the corner of Times Square, patiently watching vehicles squeeze through the endless bottleneck of traffic. Seated next to a few XR friends, my body felt vibrantly energized, and at the same time edgy with anticipation and anxiety. Closing my eyes, I allowed the cool breaths of October air to flow deep into my chest and abdomen, slowly mellowing out the tingling nerves that had crept into my limbs and extremities. Even at the bottom of this flashing concrete jungle, peace was possible. A friend leaned over to me and whispered, “Any moment now.” I looked over at Brother Phap Man, exchanging a glance of faith and a half-smile as we internally prepared for love in action.

Among the vehicles stopping and starting through the intersection, an SUV towing a 60 foot covered trailer suddenly stopped right in the middle of the street. “Go, go, go!”, I heard voices excitedly around me. In a flash, about 75 of us were darting out of every invisible street corner and into the intersection towards the motionless vehicle. Nearly 20 people started stripping off the canvas covering a large neon green boat, while a dozen others blocked incoming traffic from both sides. Another 20 or so joined arms while forming a circular blockade to protect those focused on fastening themselves with cables, locks, and super glue to the bottom, inside, and sides of the bright green vessel that read in large bold black letters, “Extinction Rebellion.” Hundreds of pedestrians stood blank faced with jaws dropped and wide stupefied eyes, wondering if this was some chaotic road scene emergency, or an impeccably orchestrated street spectacle at the heart of the city’s business district.

Order of Interbeing member and meditation teacher Shea Reister leaps over the canvas before quickly and mindfully locking himself to the boat with steel cables.

Within a few minutes, about 40 of us had gathered in a ‘soft hold’, linking arms at our elbows in solidarity to encircle the boat and its ordainment of a dozen human glue-ons. To the captivated and growing audience of bystanders around us, it must have looked like some kind of flashmob performance offering heartfelt entertainment in contrast to the monotonous orders of the workday. We were a colorful bunch of demonstrators with many of us holding flags of diverse countries being devastated by climate change, and others wearing orange life-vests to both highlight the festivity of our moment as well as dramatize the impending doom of rising oceans.  The best view of the event was held by our youngest activist superhero: a brave 16 year old boy standing on top of the boat with his hands locked around the mast, his feet superglued below, and his whole body silently yet loudly sounding an alarm for the plight of his generation.

Having fully secured our vessel in the street, and standing in stable formation, I felt an almost overwhelming combination of feelings, ranging from triumphant exaltation to heart pounding excitement and fear. It’s not every day that one risks running into the street to defiantly disrupt downtown traffic and risk arrest. I checked in with my body’s needs, as the intense adrenaline rush had resulted in some blocked pain in my chest. I closed my eyes and took refuge in my breathing again, relaxing attention into my body, and sensing the stability and strength of the earth pressing up into the soles of my feet, supporting my entire body’s weight. After a few minutes, the tensions in my chest lifted effortlessly, and I brought my attention back to the chaotic celebration around us.

Dozens of police were quickly trickling in by motorcycle and foot from different directions between the stopped traffic. At the same time, I started heard songs of passionate enthusiasm coming towards us. The Extinction Rebellion rally of a few hundred people taking place several blocks away had finally marched its way to meet us. As they eventually saw us holding the intersection, I watched their faces light up with exhilaration towards us. Their cries of joy looked like a geyser of pent up pain and grief that finally bursts itself through as a fountain of exuberant celebration. I felt overwhelmed with relief and gratitude to witness their vibrant support in such a vulnerable moment.

My fears of defying society’s rules, of ‘disobeying’ the powers that be, of being arrested and going to jail, or having a red stain on my record had all completely left me at that moment. Even the financial high-rises looming dominantly over us, under which I often feel very powerless and small had somehow crumbled in their stature before me. Their indomitable presence no longer felt oppressively unshakable in their weight of power over us. Instead, as a community we had conquered our own fears, and were burying even more powerful seeds of rebellion, hope, and renewal right in the belly of this beast called denial. Standing there with my Gaia bodhissatvas, standing in solidarity with the earth and her most vulnerable beings, I looked out into a crowd of myriad faces, and smiled from the depths of my soul as if I was looking directly into the eyes of my children and all future descendents. My deepest fears of abandoning or turning away from them and their lives out of despair and cowardice had vanished.

I started noticing hundreds of people pressed up against the endless sea of glass walls running high and low surrounding Times Square as well as dozens of suited business women and men coming out of the buildings to check out the scene. How many of them deeply questioned the consequences of climate change that day? How many people felt the tensions of internal dilemma rise to their hearts that hour?  I prayed that this demonstration would humbly inspire them to question their own roles and responsibility towards our earth and future generations.

In less than 15 minutes, we were surrounded by over 70 NYPD uniforms. A young, short, and gentle yet stoic faced male officer told me to stand up as I was under arrest. Our trainings in nonviolent civil disobedient action had clearly guided us to cooperate, never resisting arrest or even going limp. I placed my hands parallel to each other, rather than crossed, knowing that the cuffs wouldn’t be as tight. But to my surprise, he secured them very loose anyways, even softer than the hand cuff ropes I had felt as a child while playing cops and robbers with my neighborhood friends. As a group of predominantly white middle class activists, we had it incomparably easy in contrast to black and brown skinned friends who’ve been historically and systematically subjected to much harsher treatment from this city’s law enforcement. As a group of white dudes risking arrest, we had little to fear from law enforcement, and law enforcement showed little fear of us.

As I stood there in front of the police, waiting to be escorted to the arrestee bus, people in the crowd were sending messages of support and gratitude from every direction. One woman, with tears in her eyes, kept saying, “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you”. Another woman was blowing us kisses with her hands. As I walked to the jail bus, a smile was bursting forth from my heart, and I could not believe how happy that I felt, standing there in the middle of Times Square, a policeman escorting me away. I was about to visit jail for the first time in my life, and it was a true moment of joy.

‘Peace is every step’: Plum Village Dharma Teacher Phap Man enjoys mindful steps towards the jail bus.

Elder Sacrifice

We sat in our caged bus for about an hour and a half, waiting for the strategic operations unit to finish dissolving superglue and slicing through the steel cables still holding our last demonstrators aboard the ship. We weren’t moving, and I wasn’t going anywhere that day either, except for the city jailhouse. I had time to relax and reflect on the significance of our actions that morning.

‘So why all the drama?’, you may ask. ‘How does getting arrested help our earth and prevent worsening effects of climate change?’ The short answer is that time is running out and the stakes are unbelievably high. In 2018, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) released a report saying that we have 12 years to drastically turn around our emissions output, or else we will certainly reach a drastic tipping point that will set off extreme global climate consequences. The environmental movement in the last several decades has largely focused on encouraging consumers to limit their own carbon budget, and yet our CO2 emissions are still increasing every year!  Between 100 and 200 species are going extinct every day, and we are going through the middle of the 6th mass extinction of our planet. Citing thousands of studies, the IPCC reports conclude with high degrees of confidence that climate changes and ocean warming are anthropogenically induced. Our governments have all this information and yet they are still paralyzed to respond. Extinction Rebellion was launched worldwide last year in response to this report and inadequate governmental measures to protect our planet and all those at risk.

When a vast part of the population desperately wants a particular issue to change, but the rules of the game prevent its solutions, then civil disobedience can become a catalyst for social transformation. Extinction Rebellion was founded in nonviolent social movement theory and anti-oppression work, modeled after historically successful movements in the past, like the civil rights and suffrage movements in the US, Ghandi’s Satyagraha movement in India, among many others. Any movement bringing foundational change must be unequivocally committed to nonviolence inside and out.

Peaceful protests that block business as usual are not only annoying and costly, but they brings tons of public attention and unearths a growing societal dilemma that becomes too difficult to ignore. People are forced to ask themselves, ’Do we support the government and police to continue repressing these activists? Or do we support the movement’s requests for decarbonizing our economy and stronger environmental protection?’ The government can do one or the other – repress or collaborate. Further forceful repression fuels the dilemma and calls more people to question whether they side with the demonstrators or the government. The more people arrested, the more attention is created, and the more the public struggles with facing the deeper questions of the crisis, especially what side they are on. Inevitably, as the root problem worsens over time, the movement expands exponentially… until a breaking point cracks open with solutions.

‘Rebellion Week’ in Melbourne, Australia, October 2019

As a middle class American born white guy with a graduate degree and professional merits, risking arrest has relatively insignificant negative consequences for my life, yet a potentially huge social and environmental impact. Many teenagers, especially young people of color, are asking for their elders, particularly those with white privilege to take an ‘elder sacrifice’. So many young people wish that they could also take a stand of civil disobedience for the plight of earth justice, social justice, and racial justice. But if they want to go to college and take out student loans, a misdemeanor on their record, even one based on love for the earth, can seriously screw things up. So they are asking others to step forward, and put our bodies on the line for their future, and the future of many other human, animal, and plant species. Thus, being arrested in this spirit is a kind of gift to them and the planet they will inhabit.

Being arrested isn’t the best option or even a reasonable one for many people. That’s partly why it’s so right for me! I don’t have any personal trauma with police authorities; I didn’t grow up in a community that suffered from police brutality and discrimination; my legal residential status in the country is not threatened; I don’t have any reason to fear that police will treat me more harshly than others; I have little to lose economically, except for a modest fine and needing to travel back down to the city for my violation court date; and I’m not afraid that my health or personal safety are at any peril from law enforcement. Generally I feel quite safe with criminal justice system, and that is an enormous privilege for me to do something positive with. Since my basic needs and survival are not threatened in any way with the law, this makes me the perfect arrest-able candidate!

XR sisters offering an arrest for healing climate change in Times Square, NYC, October 2019

Iron Bars Meditation Hall

A few hours later, we arrived in the jail. There we were together, without cell phones, internet, books, or food; instead, we had several rows of benches, a water dispenser, a couple of toilets and sinks behind a chest high wall, plenty of iron bars, and an unknown number of hours on our hands, and each other. I thought to myself, ‘Without all the iron bars, we’d have the same ideal conditions for a great retreat center!’ After such an emotional event, what a perfect combination for connecting to ourselves and each other.

After conversing for an hour or two, I was ready for some quiet time. When I told a few guys what I was about to go meditate, their faces lit up. “Oh that sounds perfect. Do you mind if I join you?”, one guy eagerly asked. I checked around with others, and it was clear that people were craving some silence and inner relaxation after such an adrenaline thumping morning.

A few other practitioners and beloved friends of mine had also finally arrived in the cell after being processed: Brother Phap Man, a monk whom I knew from Plum Village and Blue Cliff Monasteries for over a dozen years; and Shea Reister a vibrant Wake Up facilitator (young adult groups) and Order of Interbeing member in the Plum Village tradition, with years of experience in environmental actions, and building communities of mindfulness practice. I was overjoyed to see them, knowing we would spend the rest of the day in jail together, and could offer our meditation practice to the group.

I checked in with them and another XR organizer, who had already been brainstorming some mindful exercises for our group while on the bus. We started by offering a guided meditation for anyone who wanted to join us in the second half of the cell. To my surprise, at least 35 of the men joined!  We hardly had space on the benches for everyone to sit. Meanwhile, the other 5 to 10 had some quiet time to themselves, which was probably very helpful as well.

Wake Up London held daily meditations during Rebellion Week, October 2019

I sat cross legged on the bench, using the concrete wall behind me as a support for my back. I didn’t have a bell, so I tuned into the soothing tone of my voice to gently guide the brothers into practice. I focused mostly on awareness of the body, guiding people through a simple body scan, relaxing and releasing tension from the soles of our feet all the way up to the muscles and skin on our scalp. After several minutes, my awareness sank into the subtle spaces of breathing, and softened into the intimately quiet body of men around me. Tensions lifted out of our pores, the gentle buzzing of our minds hummed together, and the boundaries of separation within and around us quietly melted, as the iron bars and officers gradually dissipated into a greater whole. There was no jail or confinement, no inside or outside, no one being held, no one holding. There was just this ripe shared awareness of being alive, the soft subtle movements of breathing, murmurs of careful shifting in the room, and the sense of being held within a community of practice right here.

Towards the end of our meditation, I started hearing what sounded like angels chanting harmonies in the distance. Were they prison angels? Heavenly spirits of the civil rights movements from decades ago here to befriend us? My mind playfully delighted at such thoughts. Down the long halls of the jail, separated into several cells, our XR sisters were connecting hearts and spirits with one another through the jail walls via vocal melodies. Perhaps they couldn’t see each other, but they could hear and harmonize with one another in even more powerful ways. We couldn’t make out the words, but the distinct overlapping melodies and choruses came in strong, like waves gently rolling and tumbling over us, one after another, falling on an invisible island of healing and strength. In our silence we found peace and stability; in their song, they shared healing and joy.

Evening meditation in Trafalgar Square. Between 200 and 300 people were arrested every day during Rebellion Week in London, 2019

Healing our Masculinity

After our meditation, later that afternoon, Brother Phap Man guided us in another set of practices, integrating mindfulness with masculinity. We gathered in a circle, with everyone just barely fitting into one fairly circular formation. He started by guiding us in breathing exercises for 10 minutes to ground and deepen our presence with ourselves and each other. Then he offered a short teaching. “I know that all of us here have a deep calling to confront and help transform difficult things in our world out there – forces that are destroying our earth and oppressing communities. But if we really want to transform things out there, then we have to know how to encounter and transform the pain and fear inside ourselves first. If we can be compassionately and fearlessly present with what’s inside of us first, then we’ll absolutely be strong enough to embrace and transform the greatest challenges out there.” We were all hooked. His brown robes gave him the pulpit to be heard, but it was his words and presence that gave him their hearts.

Exercises that challenge the habits of typical masculine emotional expression can be a hard sell. But if there’s one thing that these men respected, it was challenging the forces causing environmental destruction. They knew he was telling them the truth: if you can encounter and befriend your shadows within, then the monsters of the world are no match for you.

On this premise, he had the sway to test these guys’ inner level of comfort. He invited everyone to split into pairs, and gave instructions for a two minute silent eye gazing practice. Here we were, 40 dudes inside a New York city jail, silently staring into each other’s eyes for minutes that seemed like eternity. I could hardly believe he was going there!  But no one turned away or left the room; everyone stayed with it. Silent dominated our cell with each breath, and time seemed to shrivel into each other’s eyes as we watched our reflections stare back into our depths.

Sitting Meditation in front of New York City Hall, Rebellion Week, October 2019

“Now slowly close our eyes, and bring your attention inside”, he guided us. “Whatever you are experiencing, honor it, and feel the care and kindness towards your own being. Whatever is there, just love and care of it with your whole heart.” He was pairing the practice of lovingkindness, known as ‘maitri’, with this intimately vulnerable eye gazing exercise. After a few minutes, we were back to the eyes of our beloved man once again. Then we closed our eyes again, focusing on what we appreciated, loved, and enjoyed about our friend, no matter how closely we knew him, another practice known as “mudita” or symphathetic joy. We had another round of pupil watching, followed by a reflection on the pain and suffering in that person’s life, the practice of “karuna” or compassion.

We continued like this for a few more rounds, followed by several minutes for each of us to share about our experiences while the other person listened silently. Then we came back to the larger circle, and Brother Man invited people to share with the whole group anything that was alive for them. A slightly older man acknowledged, “I’ve never felt this close to a group of men before, with this depth of openness and realness. Thank you to all for being here.” Another more gruff and woodsy looking fellow shared, “I’ve never had the experience of looking into another man’s eyes before like that. I felt both love and some fear at the same time. But I appreciated the vulnerability and acceptance that was there in both of us.” A middle aged man shared, “I’ve been wanting to do a men’s group like this for some time now; I just never thought that it would be in jail!” We all burst out laughing, remembering the irony of our present situation. Another man recounted recognizing the face of an old friend from high school during the demonstration as he was getting arrested. His friend, however, was in uniform. He teared up with emotion, acknowledging that he was acting on behalf of his friend’s teenage kids just as much as his own children. Nearly everyone who spoke expressed a depth of gratitude for all the men present in the room, and especially to Brother Man for leading us.

Meanwhile during all this, a few guys noticed some police officers curiously peering into our cell. They were checking out this rare male bonding session, and looking at us as if we were men from another planet!  Although I didn’t see them watching us myself, I can only imagine the looks on their faces as they watched our jail cell full of men staring silently into each others’ eyes for minutes on end, over and over again. While they may have laughed or poked fun at a scene so peculiar to their cultural norms, I wonder whether they were also touched by our gentle, kind and fearless presence that day.

We ended by singing a few songs together, led by Shea. Forty-five men singing together in a jail cell is a brilliant sound and heart warming site if you ever have the chance to hear it. The song goes:

Let the life I lead speak for me.

When I get to the end of the road,

And I lay down my heavy load,

Let the life I lead, speak for me

Students rally before occupying the administration office at Columbia University, New York, October 2019

Back to Community

After about 9 hours together, they began letting us go in groups of four to five. I honestly felt a little sad leaving this beautiful community of men I had bonded with, but I was also hungry and excited to get home as well. We walked out of the jail and were met by a small group of smiling and waving people in puffy jackets waiting on the cold street corner. “You must be the jailhouse welcoming committee!”, I said laughing. “Oh no”, a woman explained. “We’re here to direct you towards the welcoming party!” “Welcoming party?!”, I asked incredulously. We walked down the street, and around the corner we were met by a crowd of about 40 to 50 people hanging out, conversing lightheartedly, and playing music on the sidewalk. It really did look like a party, and when they saw us coming, they all started cheering for us!  I didn’t even know these people! Yet here they were, welcoming and celebrating us with big hearts of joy as if we were heroes. In addition, there was a long buffet of hot homemade food and delicious snacks stretching over three tables! Curry, pasta, Chinese food, salads, drinks, cookies, and fruit…we had enough goods to celebrate all night!

The man who co-led my nonviolent civil disobedience training was also there with his young daughter. “How are you doing?”, he asked with caring attention. “I feel wonderful!” I exclaimed. “Really?!”, he laughed. “Well that’s great.” “Seriously”, I added, “This was one of the best days ever. I can’t wait to come back together and do it again!”

Extinction Rebellion is ground swelling global environmental movement that is unequivocally committed to nonviolence and telling the truth about the science and consequences of climate change. There is a strong component of regenerative community that welcomes and prioritizes meditation, art, and other healing elements in our work. For more info, check out rebellion.earth … or read ‘This is Not a Drill’.

“Let the life I lead, speak for me”


From King of Vietnam to Zen Master (Part 2)

Pilgrimage to Yen Tu Mountain

(Part 2)

April 2019 

Having finished another incline and panting again with exhaustion, I stop to breathe at a narrow clearing in the forest. ‘This is the hike of a lifetime, so why not enjoy it?’, I remind myself. I turn to look back over the brush down the mountain and feel the Noble Teacher’s eyes gazing in wonder behind me. How many times did he and his attendant overlook the splendor of the rolling blue mountains in the distance and the now miniature valley way down below? I feel the brightness of awe in his eyes as he silently asks, “How could this miracle be so real?” I breathe with this sense of wonder until peace fully replaces my fatigue.

Turning my gaze back to the path we’ve been climbing, a forest hallway of upright pines narrowly cascades down the hillside. I stop to lean against the trunk of a pine, and caress the smooth polished surface of its roots which rise above the earth up to my knees. I’m slightly startled upon realizing that they are the living descendants of the pines the Noble Teacher planted on Yen Tu mountain centuries ago. As the stories tell, he placed baby pines not only up the mountain, but all the way to the royal capital. Wherever he went, the Noble Teacher walked barefoot or on reed sandals, leaned on his bamboo staff, and carried no more than his wooden begging bowl.

Step by step, up the great hidden mountain

While stopping for another break, I watch two older Vietnamese women step barefoot up the stone and earthen path. “How do they climb with such vigor and vitality at their age?”, I ponder with admiration. “Xin Chau co”. We exchange smiles as fellow pilgrims, and their eyes perk open as if to acknowledge our contrasting east and west origins. I am reminded that I am a

guest on this mountain, the only hiker with European ancestral roots I’ve seen so far on the path. “How many generations of their ancestors have been walking this mountain year after year, century after century?” I wonder. This holy mountain must be in their bones, its rivers coursing through their blood, its spiritual faith woven into their muscle fibers, and its strength pressed down to the soles of their feet. Without hesitation, I take off my Chaco sandals and feel the cool stone under my warm feet. The mountain becomes more alive at each sensation of sand grains, pebbles, roots, and hard stone under my feet. I press my soles into the earth with all of my attention, as if the Noble Teacher were walking with my own feet. I surrender them to the joy and faith he must have felt while wandering barefoot across the same forests. Every time I start to race forward, my feet gently push into the ground, reminding me to enjoy every step, knowing this journey won’t last forever.

Beautiful steps or ugly steps, light steps or heavy steps… these concepts exist only in our mind.

The reality of interbeing is unsurpassed.

After 10 years of diligent practice, the Noble Teacher traveled the country, offering teachings to other monastics and the public, and establishing temples and meditation centers. Everywhere he went, people gathered to hear his talks. He counseled both rich and poor, encouraging them to practice the 10 virtuous deeds. They trusted his words, but were most moved simply by watching the gentle power of his presence, his rare noble bearing transformed into profound humility and grace.

Climbing to a plateau, bright green plumeria leaves sway gently over various grey stupas. On each side of a central stupa, a small fish pond surrounded by a walking path and small trees refreshes the weary guests. This is the first pagoda, where the retired king and Noble Teacher’s relics are buried. I take in the solemn yet beautifully adorned monument for several minutes, touch the earth before his dedication, and continue on.

I find it difficult to see the Noble Teacher in a pagoda or where his relics are buried. The foot polished stone steps, hovering mist, and screeching cicadas throughout the forest contain his presence more than anywhere else. The second stage up the mountain was much steeper than the first. Each step up the staircase was a push, as we climbed over 2,000 feet from the pagoda below. From this stage, a small cohort of Vietnamese pilgrims and myself had silently bonded together in our hike as if we mounted this vertical climb. A misty fog rose with us, as the valley below appeared and disappeared in shrouded mist as we glanced towards the bucolic fields below.

More steps, or less steps… it doesn’t matter. Peace is always every step.

After a strenuous and sweaty effort, even with many breaks, we finally climb over the last steps of level 2, where a gigantic golden Buddha statue sits in full lotus. Famished, I take a sweet potato from a vendor for about 40 cents, and briefly contemplate the massive statue. Here we were met by throngs of other visitors who took a gondola up from the bottom to visit the statue and perhaps walk the rest of the way to the peak. After walking amidst such natural beauty for the last few hours, this ginormous golden symbol just didn’t seem properly placed up there to me. I was more fascinated by the engineering feat of getting him seated up there than anything else. With fresh tuber energy, and the peaks not far away, I continued on.

Because people revered King Nhan Trong so greatly, the country was swept away by his teachings and dedication to monastic life. After his ordination, the Viet Kingdom underwent a spiritual as 15,000 monastics ordained in Vietnam in the following three decades. During his lifetime and afterwards, people referred to him with different names – the Great Ascetic Monk, The Buddha Enlightened King, and the Noble Bamboo Forest Teacher, as he established a new school of Zen in Vietnam, the Bamboo Forest School of Zen (Truc Lam Thien lineage). This is the only Zen school that was founded in Vietnam, as the other Zen lineages originated in China and subsequently flowed into China. This lineage included great Zen masters from Huyen Quang in the 14 century, to Lieu Quan in the 18th century, as well as Thich Nhat Hanh in the Plum Village tradition today.

I have arrived, I am home.

On a large stone slab at the peak of Yen Tu, the Noble Teacher meditated and drank tea, either alone or with the company of his closest disciples and family. His sons, the king and prince, as well as daughter who ordained as a nun visited him from time to time. Nearby lotus ponds, surrounded by purple bamboo thickets growing between the rocky surface decorate the peak.

Finding my own path up the rocky creviced peak, I step and skip from stone to slab, and weav around bamboo patches with renewed enthusiasm to my weary limbs. I approach an old, gorgeously carved shrine, whose wooden refuge is filled with incessant prayers, sandalwood fragrance, and tropical fruits from Vietnamese pilgrims. I find a quiet place nearby to listen to the wind’s cool refreshing notes, soak in the 360 view of blue mountains rolling into waves of fog in the distance, and savor the end of ascension. Thousands of feet higher than where I started this morning, a sense of lightness and freedom settles. The river of worries, dramas, and excitement in the world down below seems so distant, unable to reach us up here. Perched on a rock outcrop away from the crowds, I breathe with the presence of the Noble Teacher by my side.

Looking out to the west, the royal capital of Hanoi housed the new king centuries ago. But it was the Noble Teacher who the people loved and admired the most. He prevented foreign invaders and protected the country’s borders; later, he brought reconciliation and peace with the Cham people, an enemy to the Viet kingdom in the South. Seated here on the mountain top, meditating serenely on a stone slab among flowering bamboo, he dwelled, and the heart of the Viet people was with him.


Even though we have never met the Noble Forest Bamboo Teacher, we may still encounter his his presence through teachings, stories, and poetry. They are a gate for us to truly step into this sacred mountain.

“Going Up Mount Bao Dai”

The landscape is deserted
and the moss makes it seem even more ancient. It is still pale early spring.
Cloud-covered mountains come close,
then waver and fade.
The flower-covered paths are cast with shadows. Everything is like water flowing into water.
For a whole lifetime
the heart always gives voice to the heart. Leaning on the magnolia,
I raise a flute to my lips,
as moonlight floods my heart.

References:

– Hermitage Among the Clouds, by Thich Nhat Hanh
– The Patriarchs of Truc Lam Sect, by Thich Thanh Tu, https://www.truclamvietzen.net/ZenFounders.htm


Climbing Up Zen History in Vietnam

Pilgrimage to Yen Tu Mountain

April 2019 

Standing next to a creek at the foot of the mountain, I beheld my first glances of the ancient pagodas jetting out of dark forest foliage. Misty clouds enveloped the mountain above, hiding the peaks in mystery. Early the next morning, just after dawn, I planned to follow the ancestral footsteps of those who lived, practiced, and pilgrimaged to this sacred mountain of Yen Tu. In particular, I wished to know more deeply the king who abandoned life in the royal palace to live and train as a Zen monk in the splendor of this mountain. For those practicing in the Plum Village tradition, Yen Tu mountain is the home of our Bamboo Forest School of Zen, and whose soil and stones embodies the unique story our Vietnamese Buddhist lineage.

In the 13th century, the royal prince of Vietnam had a hungering curiosity to learn and practice Zen. Instead of assuming his royal duties, he wished to live in the mountains where ascetic life flourished. The prince would soon become king, and when his father learned of his son’s wishes for renunciation, he pleaded for him not to abandon his country and people at such a time.

Does this story sound familiar? Like Siddhartha, the young prince was determined to walk the true path of awakening. However, he did not leave his worldly concerns and the plight of his people just yet. Instead, at the age of 21, he became king and promised to unite his country to defend against imperialistic forces in the north. Supported by his father’s guidance, the young King Tran Nhan Tong immediately developed a plan to unify and strengthen the country in order to fend off the inevitable invasions of the Mongolian empire.

Down at the foothills, several thousand steps under the cloud shrouded peaks, I crossed a charming pagoda bridge, under which an ancient stream flows. It is said that after the king left the capital to pursue monastic life on Yen Tu, many of his royal attendants drowned themselves in the river to demonstrate their unswerving loyalty. Hence a pagoda was later built there to honor them. Feeling unable to fully grasp such a dramatic display of fidelity, I stopped to breathe and gently ponder the river and entrance to Yen Tu. How overwhelmingly loved this king must have been to the people at such a time. What was it like for them to see their beloved leader walk away from the palace into the mountain caves and thatched roof hermitages?

At the entrance, one saunters up an endless sight of well laid stone steps weaving through the dense forest hillside. After about 15 minutes of heavy breathing and climbing, one crosses the forest floor at a more mellow incline until the path eventually forks in two. Straight ahead lies an embellished stone staircase, a seemingly new edition to this pilgrim route. To the right is an earthy pine rooted path; its ancient yet familiar appearance pulls me closer and eventually upward. Scattered stone steps rise high and lonely above the soil like the last teeth holding on to its earthen gums. Only the rugged pine tree roots which dominate former stone steps provide stability to the washed out soil. While the route grows ever more steep, the barren pine roots feel ever more sturdy for many native and foreign sandals and fingers to take hold.

As unrivaled horsemen and with superior naval forces, the Mongols had already conquered all of China and were rapidly spreading west, even conquering most of the Middle East and Eastern Europe. It was only a matter of time before their insatiable appetite wrapped its claws around the Viet kingdom. The Mongols invaded with huge armies by both land and sea. Under the sophistication and courage of King Tran Nhan Tong and his father, the Viet forces destroyed the Mongols’ superior naval fleet by puncturing the bottoms of their ships with deep sea divers and hidden underwater spears. With minimal losses in the south, they then positioned themselves to impeccably defend the northern border against the fierce horsemen.

Under King Tran Nhan Tong, the country had become safe and protected, and enjoyed a period of peace. Without the hardships of war, the king lessened taxes in order to relieve the poor, and postponed other military campaigns so that the country could recover after two fierce wars, several famines, and other natural disasters. Having fulfilled his royal duties to his people, King Tran Nhan Tong prepared for his deepest aspirations to unfold. After 15 years leading the dynasty, he passed the crown to his first son in 1293, while closely guiding him for the next 6 years. Relieved of the overwhelming burden of ruling the country, he could now dedicate the rest of his life to spiritual awakening, while also serving as the national counselor to his country and son.

Even as I savored the various dark and light green forest rooms up the mountain, beads of sweat coursed down my face at every turn, and my body grappled with the dense jungle humidity. To escape my discomfort, I continuously felt the urge to push through the fatigue, and race upwards to my destination. The habitual tendency to push through and finish felt so familiar to me, and yet there was another force walking up the mountain alongside me. I could hear the soft and firmly planted footsteps of the Noble Teacher steadily following behind me. His steps had gracefully landed on this path countless times, and had infused into the mountainside. As I stop to catch my breath, it was as if he too was pausing to breathe at my side for a short rest. A black butterfly with fluorescent blue spotted wings draws especially near, our reward from the mountain for stopping to enjoy her beauty.

The retired king studied the Dharma in depth with the Eminent Master Tue Trung, who had also been born into the Tran royal family and dedicated half of his life to protecting the country before stepping into monastic life. After 6 years, the former king finally ordained as a Buddhist monk in 1999, and soon made his home in the majestic forests and peaks of Yen Tu Mountain, dedicating himself to mastering the 10 ascetic virtues. Having lived most of his life in a palace embellished with gold and precious gems, he finally discovered true peace as a homeless monk. He wore only a patchwork robe, slept under simple thatched roofs on Mount Yen Tu, and took the medicine and spiritual nourishment of nature’s offerings. After 10 years on the mountain, he had still not built great temples or pagodas, but was content with the simple life of awakening, while finding ways to deeply guide and impact the well-being of the country.

Even though we have never met the Noble Forest Bamboo Teacher, we may still encounter his his presence through teachings, stories, and poetry. They are a gate for us to truly step into this sacred mountain.

“Going Up Mount Bao Dai”

The landscape is deserted
and the moss makes it seem even more ancient. It is still pale early spring.
Cloud-covered mountains come close,
then waver and fade.
The flower-covered paths are cast with shadows. Everything is like water flowing into water.
For a whole lifetime
the heart always gives voice to the heart. Leaning on the magnolia,
I raise a flute to my lips,
as moonlight floods my heart.

References:

– Hermitage Among the Clouds, by Thich Nhat Hanh
– The Patriarchs of Truc Lam Sect, by Thich Thanh Tu, https://www.truclamvietzen.net/ZenFounders.htm



London's Family Sangha!

New London Family Sangha Video!!

London's Family Sangha

December, 2018

Noah and Hannah are in their prime Wake Up years in a blooming young adult community in London. 30 and 27 years old respectively, they’ve been practicing for several years, having facilitated the weekly Wake Up gatherings, organized and co-facilitated retreats, and even started a thriving mindfulness community of 6 young adults living together in London. For many practitioners, this is more than enough to satisfy a rich life of practice and Sanghabuilding. But as young adults, without the responsibilities of their own children, they’ve taken their capacity as Sangha builders to a whole other realm of practice that is just yearning for more growth and offerings…. Family Sangha.

Three years ago, Hannah and Noah’s aspirations collided with Claudia’s, a mother of two teens whose determined spirit for a family Sangha matched theirs…. and a new Sangha was born.  Claudia is from Mexico, and is one of the brightly colored beams in this multifaceted jewel of the Family Sangha, which is one of the most diverse Sanghas in London, and perhaps even among all of the UK Sanghas in the Plum Village tradition. There is usually someone representing each decade of life up till decade #7, and those from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds find a rare and sacred sense of beloved community together.

I was beyond excited and grateful be invited by Claudia, Noah, and Hannah to help organize and teach at their second annual Family Sangha retreat, which just bloomed last weekend. Every month of the year, about a dozen or so families with children of all ages convene in London as one community to nourish each other’s well-being, connect as friends, share a mindful meal, and practice the art of mindfulness. Parents, grandparents, children, and teens – whatever the age, everyone (over 4 years old) has an opportunity to explore the simple yet timeless tools of practice in ways that match their developmentally appropriate needs and strengths. Babies and toddlers just kind of soak in the general vibe, but who knows how much their mirror neurons are taking in and reshaping under such lovingkindness ambiance?!

These family style retreats are probably unlike any other retreat you’ve been to. To be straight up, it’s way more challenging and daunting to one’s practice than any other retreats I’ve done before. Overall, there’s way more work, disorder, and even chaos, and less calm, noble silence, and samadhi than any typical retreat. And yet, as we deepen our practice together over the weekend, it’s even more glorious and satisfying to witness that seed of beloved family-ness blossom in my own soul than any I could imagine.

Half a dozen toddlers may be tumbling around the meditation hall, kids start playfully teasing and laughing with each other, and the teens seem to be just barely hanging on as we gather all together in a circle as one community to begin the day.

Breathing in, I am aware of the elements of chaos within and around me,

Breathing out, I completely surrender to this present moment, with all of its incredible gifts.

Breathing in, I anchor my being in this breath,

Breathing out, I feel my solidity ripple into the room.

Noah sounds a large bell, inviting kids and adults to listen attentively so they can hear the last fading, soothing sounds of the bell, before raising their hands to signal the end of the bell. Kids, teens, and parents all suddenly become one living, breathing, listening body; gradually, little hands and big hands rise together. The sudden change to quiet concentration in this same room is uncanny; before we even know it, mindfulness is alive.

Instead of a children’s Dharma Talk, we try something new with everyone. We form a new circle, aligning ourselves according to our biological age. Eight generations span across the room, from several months old to early 70s. Each person is then invited to share their name, age, and the coolest thing about being that particular age for them. The unique joys and wisdom of our respective years on this planet is awe-inspiring as we collectively celebrate our ageless diversity that typically goes unnoticed.

Soon, the young ones break off for a children’s program with Renata (a regular bodhissatva momma in Family Sangha), while the teens and parents stay to listen to a teaching about authenticity and friendship in the lives of teenagers. Afterwards, the teens split off with me and Hannah, while Claudia and Noah co-facilitate a sharing circle for the parents. Each group then has their own space to dive into their own needs and topics, with privacy, honesty, and most importantly a bit of quiet from the roaring little ones.

Each day, the teens and us share a space together for 75 to 90 minutes, where they can just share freely. No interruptions from parents are allowed, no cell phones to distract, and no one is giving advice to them; only toddlers occasionally try to bust in through the door and see what’s so important. We keep them at bay and blockade the entrance, as a teen refuge is a precious thing! When teens are able to have their own space, and freely share about whatever gripes, struggles and injustices they face in a world that hardly understands them, something magical starts happening. In the midst of sharing what bothers them the most, or what fires them up, there’s a tangible bond that starts forming. In that depth of sincerity and connection, bits of wisdom and personal insights start trickling in little by little. “What was said earlier about if you want to see yourself in 5 years, then look at your friends now, that’s kind of true. That makes me think about who my friends are now and how they’re all influencing me.” I wish I could share more, but I’m sworn to teen secrecy until the end of time.

Ella was a particularly unique presence and gift to our group, her capacity for communication having left us in awe. Ella has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair to get around. She can’t speak or use most of her body. But a few years ago, she started learning a computer program that uses retina laser technology that allows her to ‘type’ into the computer using her eyes’ focus. Amazingly, Ella participated in every teen sharing circle, connecting deeply with us about her personal reflections as a teen. While Ella’s situation is grossly different than a typical able bodied young person, she faces many of the same elements of teen life, from loads of work at school to struggles with parents, to fitting in and going after her creative dreams. For me, Ella’s insights were some of the brightest gems of our retreat.

By the end of the retreat, every teen shared that the best part of the weekend for them was simply having a space for them to share and just be themselves in the teen space. Hannah and I secretly felt like we had just been handed a big treasure chest at the end of a 48 hour voyage at sea on the teen ship.

The last day of the retreat, we offered a practice called Beginning Anew for each of the families to explore together for an hour. Each family found either a nice spot outside on the grass, on a bench, or inside with some tea and biscuits. Then each member was invited to share their sincere appreciations for the other members of the family, express any apologies, as well as as for support for anything that has been difficult within their family or in their lives.

Children, teens, and parents all practice in separate spaces to share, write letters, and create beautiful Beginning Anew cards. The depth of practice and harmony that manifests as the separate streams weave back together as larger families is truly an auspicious sign for the future of our world in which we struggle so deeply to both live and raise children.

Not being with my own family or partner there, I walked around outside during the Beginning Anew sessions. Some families were cuddled up next to each other on a swing, others were sitting together on the grass, sharing smiles and treats, passing cards they colored and wrote for each other, and looking at each other with eyes of affection. I didn’t feel alone or separate from my own family while walking through. Instead, I felt the deep roots of family happiness growing inside of me like a small tree. “Yes, happiness is possible!” was the family vibe in the air. Even as I was holding space for the families to practice together, it was I who received the fruits of their practice. 

Perhaps not everyone was celebrating harmoniously at that hour; some wounds need to be unearthed in order to be healed over time, even if the exposure is painful and difficult. But the collective harmony and transformation was vibrant, and everyone had their peers to take refuge in if their family felt like too much.

For anyone who wishes to start a Family Sangha in their own community, it’s totally possible. Just ask Claudia, Hannah, and Noah. You don’t need to be expert facilitators, and you don’t even have to have kids yourself. In fact, a family Sangha may need you because you don’t have kids, and so you have the time and energy to organize! You just need the spark of bodhicitta to help grow this particular garden, and some time to watch it blossom.

For more information, check out FamilySanghaLondon.com or be sure and watch amazing video that they recently made about their community!


Old friends, young hearts, and playful spirits



Weekend Retreat at Mariposa: Through a Newcomer's Eyes

Weekend Retreat at Mariposa: Through A Newcomer's Eyes

Part 2 of the Sugarplum Sangha Series

September, 2018

We were mindfully enjoying a silent dinner on the first night of retreat when a few more people arrived to the retreat. I noticed them walking slowly, carefully, but with inexpressible eagerness into the dining hall.  A young woman entered the room and hardly glanced at the serving table of delicious offerings. Instead her bright eyes were filled to the brim with joyous anticipation, and focused on a friend coming to greet her. The intimate blend of shyness and joy clearly told a story of how much this place and its people had been on her mind and heart, perhaps for weeks, months, or longer…. she had finally arrived.

The brightness in the woman’s eyes and the nature of that interaction was like someone meeting up a beloved family member or a longtime friend while traveling abroad; the love of home and deep familiarity mixed with a sense of ripening adventure was bursting out of her face. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched the fire of anticipation immediately cooled in the refreshing lake of contact, as they hugged silently and serenely for a few minutes. As a new person to this community, I felt a mixture of both awe and appreciation as well as a touch of envy for the close bonds they appeared to share. Earlier in the week, Jonathan and Eric had already forewarned me with patient excitement in their voices, about the special quality of friendships that were blooming among their nascent community. But hearing about and experiencing are two separate things. This dinner was my first real taste of the wider Sugarplum Sangha that fluidly blends both residential and non-residential practitioners into one family.

The Sugarplum Sangha has held a retreat every month of the year together since December 2016. At that time, Joann Rosen, a seasoned Dharma Teacher and long time resident of the Mariposa Institute had been in communication with Jonathan Borella and My Tong, who were passionate, committed (and not too shabby) Sanghabuilders in the Bay and LA area. She invited them to come live there, partner with the existing Mariposa Center, and hold retreats there regularly, thereby laying the foundations of a mindfulness retreat center and residential community. By the time I visited them in April, they had already offered well over a dozen retreats, and their young Sangha tree was already bearing some delicious fruits in its 2nd year together.

So where does the sweetness of the Sugar Plum Sangha come from?  Well the best way to taste this sweetness is to dive in with me on this weekend retreat and weeklong journey I spent there with them… So come along!…

Welcome to Mariposa! …. Dinner will be a bit late, but very happily prepared!

As the sunset laid down countless beams upon the glowing oak leave canopy over Mariposa, I walked down the gravel road to a large wooden yurt for orientation. Its Eastside windows seemed to hang like a spaceship in midair over the creek bed valley and oakwood forest, offering us the beauties of outdoor living in this cozy hall. Having helped wash up after dinner, I was the last one to arrive. The atmosphere inside was crisp with silence as I opened the creaking wooden doors to enter. Everyone was sitting quietly, with eyes closed, breathing harmoniously in stillness together, as if they were some kind of single living, breathing organism in circular formation.

After several minutes, Eric, one of the four residents, invited a bell and broke the silence with a soft yet unmistakably excited voice to welcome us. My, another resident and Sangha co-founder, sat next to Eric as they co-led the orientation. On the surface, they calmly explained the fundamentals of mindfulness practice as well as logistics of the center; but on a more subtle and energetic level, the two of them were tempting us to step more closely into the magical mindfulness journey they have been walking together over the last 15 months. The mood in the room, like the tones in their voices was serene and sincere, with small unconcealed bursts of joy and nervousness eliminated any heaviness in the air. My’s soft, angelic voice was balanced by an unquestionable trust and confidence in the depth of her experiences thus far. “This is the 13th or 14th retreat we’ve done here together, and it’s something very precious that we’ve been slowly cultivating together. We’re a community and peer led retreat. That means we’re all learning from and growing with each other. Yes, we learn so much every time, just like we will this weekend.” 

After a pause, Eric recommenced, “As a community, we all have some parts of our lives that we’re beginners at, and others that we’re more experts at. These retreats are a chance for us to share our gifts with each other, learn from each other, both offering and receiving at once.”  Many gifts and givers there were indeed that weekend. The diversity of five organizers who were leading various activities was impressive, spanning females, males, Filipino, Caucasian, and Vietnamese backgrounds. To be honest, the wide spectrum of unique strengths among the facilitators was one of the most uplifting aspects of the whole retreat for me. As I happened to glance over a few of the anonymous feedback forms at the end of the retreat, it seems like I wasn’t the only one who thought so.

This happened to be the first retreat without Jonathan, one of the core founders and teachers in the community, and it seemed like a big deal for people, especially the organizing and facilitating crew. He was the most seasoned practitioner among them and carried most of the Sangha’s facilitation and organizational leadership in the first year. But by now, the forest had grown several pillar trees who stood strong to embrace the rest of the forest.

Eric was the only male on the organizing team this time. Being a resident and having lots of practice experience over the last few years, he’d had a primary role in organizing retreats the last year. Eric shared with me a few days prior that Joann, the local Dharma Teacher, had commented to their organizing team, ‘Yes, the retreat was great, and things are going great. But, there are too many white guys talking.’ This was felt like a conundrum for them at first, as both Jonathan and Eric, the two ‘white guy’ facilitators, were the only ones living full time at Mariposa over the past year, and thereby did most of the organizing and preparatory work for the retreats. But Joann’s point had clearly made it’s mark, as the Sangha was now supporting a more diverse and dynamic group of non-resident members into facilitatory action. The leadership was well spread out across the retreat. No voice stood out too strongly in front of another, while every voice stood out strong among each other.

After over 45 minutes of sitting and listening together, the facilitators suddenly shook things up with a surprise. I was reminded of the facilitators’ youthful ages as we moved into a game I had never heard of before…. “Buddha Freeze Tag!” (In fact, they later admitted that they invented the game that morning!)

What Buddha Freeze Tag feels like with Sugarplum Sangha

Prior to the game, we had listened to a moving passage form Old Path White Clouds, an account of the Buddha’s life, in which the Buddha befriended and affectionately touched a child who was part of the lowest class in Indian society, the ‘untouchables’. And this became the theme of the game! Basically, someone is the ‘Buddha’ and stands in the middle. That person tries to tag the ‘untouchables’ (the rest of us in the circle) to make them Buddhas and bodhissatvas as well. The untouchables are afraid of being tagged (because of deeply ingrained cultural fears), and try to avoid being touched. Someone in the circle starts off by saying a second person’s name; that second person has to say someone else’s name in the circle before the Buddha in the middle tags them. Slowly, everyone becomes a Buddha, and the game ends when we all become enlightened! (i.e, tagged out). The game was a total hit among everyone, while at the same time forcing us to memorize everyone’s name extremely quickly, especially for us competitive types! Everyone rolled with laughter as people tried to blurt out each other’s names before freezing with fear of being tagged. What a contrast to the meditation and stillness earlier in the evening. It was one of the most fun and creative ice-breakers that I can ever remember playing. What do you expect with the facilitators all being in their 20s and 30s? While perhaps not always true, this quality often supports better games all around.

Dawn in the mountains of Mariposa, home of Sugarplum Sangha

The nights and early mornings in these low coastal mountains were still cold, as we gathered for pre-dawn meditations every morning. A wood fire stove had been burning well before our arrival,  as we cozily gathered inside for warmth, togetherness, and peace. After the meditation, My translated a dharma talk by Thich Nhat Hanh that was originally offered in Vietnamese. I was feeling sleepy that morning, and yet I felt ease and grateful knowing that every aspect and need was being cared for so fluidly and generously by the rest of this young Sangha body.

We finished the dharma talk and proceeded to breakfast, which was was completely silent until wash-up. Except for the last lunch, every meal was silent during the first 15 to 20 minutes in order to practice mindful eating, and maintain a collective energy not dominated by boisterous exchanges throughout the day. And all the better for us, as the meals were exquisitely prepared, and we were a talkative bunch already. For example on the first night, Teel, a new Mariposa resident, went all out to prepare a burrito bar on the first night that included homemade cashew butter topping, cilantro sauce, and a chocolate banana date smoothie. Aside from the decadence, you could feel the love and intimate Sangha friendship flowing through each of her dishes.

Following a break, the Sangha started ‘working meditation’, which I would more appropriately call ‘joyful service’, because there wan’t a lot of meditation happening. While perhaps some people were quietly focused at times, my team had continuous laughter, smiles, and conversations throughout.  We tossed each other empty buckets like footballs after dumping each load of manure, and used wheel barrow journeys down the hill to get to better know each other. Regardless of one preferred quiet or conversation, one thing was clear: a ubiquitously positive spirit infused our work to help build and beautify this Sangha home. We knew that our hands were helping shape, even a little bit, this center for future retreats and possibly even future generations of practitioners.

Working meditation is the best!!

What a day of retreat… Besides everything mentioned, the Sangha gathered for a letter writing exercise, a 2 hour presentation and discussion on global mindfulness communities, dharma sharing for an hour and a half, and an hour and half long Interplay session…. WOOWWW!!!  We sure packed it in. It may have been the fullest day of retreat in my life… and it was all incredibly rich and fun as well. It was one of the most joyful days I’d had in quite a while, actually. I enjoyed it thoroughly, despite even not having slept well the night before. You can bet that I slept well the following night though.

Sunday included another 40 minute meditation at dawn, followed by yoga and breakfast together. One thing I really valued about this retreat was the organizers’ sensitivity to time and spaciousness for closing the retreat on Sunday, which gives everyone plenty of time to clean up their rooms and leave right after lunch. An unhurried drive home (especially for those commuting a few hours back to the Bay), time to settle in back home, do some laundry if needed, and enjoy a relaxing evening before Monday at work is what I call smart retreating.

Our closing session together was… well perfect, for me at least. We grounded ourselves in silent breathing for 10 minutes, the home base of our practice together. Then we did a series of touching the earth practice, offering our respect and gratitude to the land all the ancestors who came before us, before entering into a final sharing circle. For both the closing circle and dharma sharing the day before, people shared with a depth of trust, and vulnerability that was both striking to me as well inexpressibly familiar. People’s raw honesty and personal suffering was matched by overwhelming appreciation and joy for their experiences on retreat and everyone there. This candor and vulnerability allowed people to feel really seen, heard, and supported in what was most present in their lives right then and there. People shared about mental health issues in their family and feeling helpless about it; others shared about current struggles with mental health and weight control; another shared about feeling socially anxious throughout her life, yet still greatly enjoying the retreat’s social activities together; several people spoke to a recurring theme of critical and harsh self-judgments, and how to hold such thoughts and feelings more attentively with discernment and with compassion. Throughout it all, everyone shared their gratitude for what was happening in the retreat, and the opportunity be part of this vigorously budding community.

Cleaning the windows of our souls, we reflect each other more clearly and beautifully…

One gets the sense here that people are positively proud of what they are creating together, and for this precious seedling that is on the rise. They were grateful and excited to be part of something that felt so fresh and genuine, and with so much potential to grow in themselves. Most of all, they felt the happiness and pride of building it themselves. They weren’t following one leader or teacher throughout the retreat; instead, the regular members were all slowly become the leader themselves in some small way or another. That is the mysterious power of the Sangha – something that you can’t exactly place your finger on or duplicate, but you can touch it and receive it through the magic and strength of the group.

Before leaving Mariposa, I sat with Teel on the deck of her porch and newly decorated cabin during a lazy afternoon after the retreat. The afternoon forest was cool yet the spring sunshine was still bright. I shared with her that MorningSun Community, my resident home Sangha feels pregnant with possibility; it’s still young and a growing community that’s just waiting for something big to be born and created through it. She turned to me with wide eyes of knowing and said, “That’s what it feels like here too.”

A Sugarplum Cinnamon Swirl…. Yummm!!!


For more information on Sugarplum Sangha, and to see some really cool videos of their retreats and practice, visit:

www.SugarplumSangha.org


Enjoy a few more photos to taste the many flavors of the Sugarplum Sangha retreat...

Working mindfully, working joyfully, working with a smile to benefit all beings…

How wonderful to clean. Day by day, my heart and mind grow clearer.

(My favorite photo taken at Sugarplum Sangha!)


Special thanks to the kind and generous hearted Sangha friends at Sugar Plum who welcomed me for one week to their community. I'm looking forward to visiting back soon!


The Blooming Forest of Sugar Plum Sangha

The Blooming Forest and Community of Sugar Plum Sangha

#1 of the Mariposa Series

May, 2017

What most impressed me when first visiting Sugar Plum Sangha at the Mariposa Institute was not the hand-built redwood cabins and dorms, nor the meditation hall overlooking the valley forest and creek, nor even the burgeoning community of young people. Rather, first off was the blooming forest completely enveloping their community. So before sharing anything further about the flourishing mindfulness community, let us saunter through the petal rich flourishing forest community. Let us take a rest and sit atop a high rock overlooking the valley with a warm cup of tea in our hands. Welcome to Mariposa and her many many blooming beings….

The slow and rich forest mountain drive up to Mariposa…

Not far off the 101 freeway in Northern California, less than 2 hours north of San Francisco, I drove along a dirt road into the dark green mountain hills, climbing slowly into a river valley well hidden from the city. It was already late afternoon when I arrived at the Mariposa Institute, and its old redwood built cabins and campus appeared very cool and dark shady brown under the thick shade of the oak forest. An old friend appeared, Jonathan, welcoming me with a long Sangha hug to this car weary traveler.

I was eager to explore, so we briefly toured the main buildings and a few cabin dwellings sprinkled throughout the forest valley, as we meandered to the meadow and creek main attractions.  It is difficult to describe the overwhelming contrast of spring’s magic in these California coastal mountains to the frigid city life not far away. It softens the senses, and seemed to prepare my heart and mind for a deeper connection to the community.

We sauntered along the forest paths at the same pace of the soft breeze in the air, following Jonathan’s footsteps that felt neither too slow or too fast. Each step, this hallmark of our tradition, reminded me I was at home in the Sangha here. Even a slight rush to our gait would seem to disrespect the rainbow galaxies of wildflowers and fresh fluorescent green blades waving to us from below. Light permeated a little bit everywhere through the feathered canopy of baby green oak leaves.

Crossing a meadow filled with wild violet irises among countless other blooming beings whose names I have yet to learn, we coursed our way through a steeper forested hillside with a streamed below. Every so often, I would stop and look at Jonathan as if to say, “Dude, You live here now?!”  Jonathan would just chuckle as if he was also barely believing it himself and say, “Yah, I know.” 

The trail meanders through meadows, oak forests, and all along the riverbed valley.

It didn’t take me long to discover why they chose this valley as the true soil to plant their deepest aspirations for building community.“There must be over a billion flowers booming in this stream valley alone, and perhaps a hundred billion across the other valley as well” I thought to myself. Over the next several days, I met many violet and white striped ‘wild irises’, various shades of violet and off-white lupin, little yellow ‘mariposa lilies’ growing on the rocky hillsides, the ‘crimson columbines’ that look like mini gorgeous spaceships, the transparent white and orange ‘fairy lanterns’ that look like real fairy lanterns, and the ‘blue dicks’ with their long stems and just usually two to four violet flowers on top that the butterflies perch and eat from… each one was a new mesmerizing friend.

During my walks either alone or with a friend, I would occasionally stumble upon a whole tribe of  one variety, especially if we ventured off the path. Minding their own business on a undiscovered slope tucked in the valley, I would find this village of wild violet irises, or a well knit community of cool-blue lupin friends. Perhaps they enjoyed particular conditions together there: a little more shade, more moisture, or perhaps more this soil than another. Whatever their reasons, they gathered by the dozens and dozens nearby, covering they territory they have claimed as home.

A family of lupin pops up to greet us happily along our way.

Eventually we came to what Jonathan wanted to show me: a simple, yet very elegant series of cascades hopping down one after another for about 25 to 30 feet. The multiple stages had 5 to 8 foot cascades, gently hopping down one after another, turning left and right, and filling small 2 to 3 person sized swimming holes in the rock at each turn. On the one hand, it was nothing in comparison to the falls that Vanessa and I had become accustomed to in Washington or New Zealand. They weren’t gigantic and thundering, nor magnificent enough to attract people from afar. Yet, this was their waterfall….  gentle cascades in their very own humble backyard. And at a short distance, even a small waterfall can be almost overwhelming to the ears, drowning out any noise in the periphery, and simultaneously numbing the spirit of any dis-ease and anxiety in the periphery of our mind. This was a clearly a Mariposa gem.

I asked Jonathan if we could climb the rocks left of the falls, rising higher above the ravine walls. He hadn’t tried it yet, so like little boys again, we played rock climbing up to the top. The steep and edgy rockside, combined with its pasty violet white succulents growing all around, and various golden yellow, violet, and light maroon wild flowers spurting up in the most unforeseen places was at once exhilarating and peacefully delightful.

Finally, we arose to the simple summit, and behold the view! The view that I am now sitting upon. The kind of view that puts so much of life into grand persecutive and scope of ease. The kind of view that mellows an anxious spirit, and warms the cold places in our soul. It was an western view to catch the last of the sunset rays over the horizon. As I would later find out, the other side of the waterfall valley had an equally stunning view, rising even higher than where we originally perched. With its eastern view, it was an unparalleled morning meditation spot, offering the first glimpses and warmth of the rays peaking up over the mountainous horizon.

A longtime resident later informed that it was called King Kong hill, and I think for good reason. The rocky plateau on top jets out high above the creek bed, and offers a stunning view of the valley on multiple sides. The sheer drop on the eastern side over the creek bed makes one feel like your just the king of the whole forest. If it weren’t for a few lilac bushes on the northwestern side, then the protruding outcrop would offer a full stunning 360 degree view.

Jonathan and I had planned on heading back before sunset, but with our new view, that plan just became obsolete. We poured some tea and breathed silently with the lingering rays. Neither of us could call ourselves wealthy by most conventional financial standards. But a cup of tea out there under the evening sunlight, our bums cushioned by thick red-green moss over the rocks, welcomed by many blooming friends, having a deeply present friend to enjoy it with, and indeed we could call ourselves with absolute certainty, very rich beings in this Universe.

Welcome to the Sugar Plum Sangha at Mariposa.

Old friends, young hearts, and playful spirits

“A view that mellows an anxious spirit or warms the cold places in our soul”



"You're Not Teachers... You're Listeners!" (Advice before Greece)

Part of the Greece Sangha Service Series

March, 2018

Plum Village, August 2017, under the Linden tree on the closing day of the Wake Up retreat in Upper Hamlet…

“What you need to do is to go there and just listen. Don’t go trying to teach anything, mindfulness, or whatever. You want to offer something, you want to help, but what you need to do is listen because you don’t know anything. You’re going to a whole new country, and you’re meeting a whole new culture. You don’t know them, you don’t know anything about them. You can’t teach mindfulness because you don’t know what they need. So, you just listen, that’s your practice. You’re not teachers David, you’re listeners.”


Phap Dung had just finished properly turning my head around 360 degrees, emptying out what was inside, and then setting it back on straight. I hadn’t expected him to knock my noggin out of the ball park, along with all my thoughts and expectations of ‘mindfully’ serving in Greece. As a friend acknowledged a few hours later, I had been ‘Phap Dung-ed’, a not-so-rare Plum Village phenomenon. I had sought his advice and encouragements for our Greece Sangha Service project, knowing that this would be a challenging expedition of both living and serving together in the ongoing refugee crisis. This included our aspirations to share our practice with other volunteers and NGOs serving in Greece, as I was familiar with sharing mindfulness practice with social workers back home. Fortunately, we have elder brothers and sisters who are not afraid to offer us a Dharma punch when we truly need it, so that our deepest aspirations can meet our habit energies on the ground, and not in the clouds.

“Phap Dung-ed”… with a smile.

During the past several years, Greece has been a doorway for millions of migrants seeking refuge from war, persecution, and economic distress. They risked everything: their homeland, savings, family members, and even their own lives, while hoping for a new way of life. For years, I felt called to go and serve in Greece, but I also knew that I could not go alone. Alone, I would shrivel up and my efforts would not reach as far as I truly hoped. I knew that I needed a Sangha.

So where can one share such aspirations with hundreds of young people who are opening their hearts to compassionate action and peace in themselves? Yep, a Wake Up Retreat in Plum Village! Last August, we shared our aspirations to model the School of Youth for Social Service in Vietnam and head down to Greece as a Sangha, asking for people to join us. ‘Let’s fuse together our practice of mindful living and sanghabuilding with our deep calling to serve those who in need.’ We understood that volunteers were strongly needed in Greece during the fall and winter months especially, so we invited people, “Come talk with us at lunch if you’re interested.” Each lunch gathering, over 20 people joined!  And in the end, 15 young adults, from eight different countries were committed to embarking on this adventure together! Wow! I love our Sangha!

Our Sangha crew of volunteers for the first month in Athens

So what did we do? We came together and first off, we listened to each other, and this only grew stronger every day. Who were these people we were living with? What were their deepest dreams and fears? What nourishment did we truly need as a Sangha to offer our presence wholeheartedly every day to others? Through our deep listening and sharing, we co-created our lives together, balancing work with morning meditations, silent meals, dharma sharings, and at least one super fun outing in nature or the city each week.

We lived in a migrant-rich neighborhood, allowing us to live in the same neighborhood with those we aspired to learn from, serve, and build relationships. We worked in refugee camps, community centers, and NGO’s in Athens, and in diverse capacities such as art therapists, physiotherapists, assistant cooks and staff in soup kitchens, mental health practitioners, legal support, construction, English and French language instruction, animal care, community gardening, and facilitated a weekly Sangha in town as well. And after a few months (of listening and learning), we did end up offering mindfulness workshops for NGO staff and volunteers who asked for our support. Some of us stayed for one month, others two to four months, and still others remain committed to living, Sanghabuilding, and creatively serving in Athens.

Looking and listening to the city with all her beauty, cries, and wonder….

Then we listened to the streets: to the singing-shouting tone of the woman selling bags of onions, tomatoes, and potatoes on our corner for one euro each; to the young Syrian man’s effervescent smile as we get off the same bus stop together and become instant friends; to the smell of tomatoes and garlic stewing under Syrian hands at Hope Café; to the compassionate trust in our brother’s voice as he recounted holding his brother in his hands for the last time after being shot by a sniper while waiting in line for food; and to crazy laughter as Phillipe tossed children in the air on his feet for the first acro-yoga session of their lives. We listened, learned, marveled at their spirits of resilience, and most of all, we developed friendships. True listening cannot help but create true friendships. And when true friendship manifests, there is no one serving and no one being served. There is only love that serves us both and reminds us of the gifts that we are to each other.

Dermot (left) and Barry (right) hang out with a dear Syrian friend and regular at Hope Cafe. Hope Cafe was the most vibrant, friendly, and supportive public space for the Syrian community that we experienced. To our blessing, it was a 5 minute walk from our house.

As our power of listening grew, so did our other Sangha powers, namely harmony, and joy. Before heading Athens together, we also asked for guidance from other monastics, like Br. Phap Linh. “Don’t forget to nourish your joy together”, he implored. “ That’s essential. Because when you nourish your joy, that’s what you’ll be sharing with others. You don’t keep it for yourselves, you offer that beautiful energy to those that you’ll be with. Especially when you’re doing this kind of work, if you’re feeling down and drained of energy, then you haven’t got anything to offer to others. They need for you to be nourished deeply. So you need to replenish your reserves; it’s a constant cycle of nourishment and offering.”

And from the abbot, Br Phap Huu: “The most important thing is your harmony together. That is what will carry you through. That is the energy that will allow you to help others. People will see your harmony, your brotherhood and sisterhood and feel drawn to it.”

We took these gems of wisdom that were handed freely to us, and then we polished them with our own experiences. Most importantly, we learned to build a Sangha family, and that was our deepest teaching of all. What is the kind of family that we wish for the most in our lives? A family that supports us, that helps us cultivate joyful togetherness, compassionate listening, and harmony among each other that we then channel into the lives of those we wish to serve with all our hearts. Through our deep aspiration to serve the world, we touched the seed of true  community, of family, of Sangha, because we need that true Sangha family in order to truly serve others.

Sangha family, in joy and harmony

We learned that when we didn’t cultivate joy, listen deeply, or disregarded harmony, then it left us near empty in our service towards others. So we began again and again and again with each other, and we never gave on each other. We sat in the mornings, came home to the safe warm refuge of dharma sharings in the evening, and practiced harmony of views during meetings to forge creative insights in our major decisions together. When someone left our Sangha, we watered their flowers so deeply that it brought deep joy and even bliss to all of us. We became one Buddha body, and when one cell touched happiness, then the rest of the body had more strength and love to share with others. And when the body was in harmony, each cell reflected delight and could shower this energy to those elsewhere.

I could share for hours and hours about our stories of our Sangha family and service, but I will now pass the baton over to my Sangha brothers and sisters, who may share their stories and reflections more deeply with you. The articles following in the next few weeks are windows into our experiences as cells working in various arenas of Athens, while also being nourished and held as one Sangha body.

Mercia practically holds our hand as we wake up with the Sangha one morning and intimately walk into the streets and friends at Hope Café. Zarah invites us into Eleonas Refugee Camp and to the safe warm haven back home, where both places carry one message: be there for each other! Dermot takes us through the streets and squats of Athens while arriving at one of the deepest experiences of family in his life. And Barry unravels the ancient koan of engaged Buddhism in his own heart: What does it truly mean to serve?

Welcome to our lives of service, family, and heartbreaking joy with Wake Up Athens!

–    David Viafora, True Zen Mountain

Our first week in Athens, we walked to the top of the hill together…. listening, meditating, and discovering moment by moment the beauty of our beloved city



New Years Retreat 2018: Brothers before Refugees

Brothers and Humans before Refugees

Part 4 of the Greece Sangha Service Series

January, 2018

It was the first gathering and first night together of our New Years retreat on Aegina Island. Although we were not far from home, the raucous life and cries from Athens seemed like a distant world behind us. Our Aegina oasis on the other hand, with its jungle-like garden, serene ocean two hundred meters away, groves of pistachio trees surrounding us on all sides, aged beauty of its historic residence with wooden floors, old garden statues, and multiple balconies overlooking the dark aqua sea with island and peninsula mountains in the horizon – it was an utterly majestic setting, and she enveloped our souls into its wild and heavenly embrace. Because of the generosity and vision of her stewards, we were able to afford this beautiful center and express our deep aspirations. This was a unique New Years retreat combining international volunteers, refugees from the Middle East and Africa, and Greek residents. While paradise surrounded us, even more magic was unfolding within its walls.

Groves of bare pistachio trees and a forested garden surround the castle-like retreat center on Aegina, our island oasis for five days together.

Instead of heading up top to the presentation room with its impressive views of islands and stars, we gathered in the communal room downstairs for our first gathering together. Its lofty ceiling and windows expansively overlooked the garden’s jungle, offering us a relaxed and casual, yet inspiring atmosphere for us to connect, release, and be embraced. While the group contained several strong friendships, many of us were totally new to each other. Furthermore, it was the first time that several of us, including volunteers and refugees, had ever experienced meditation, let alone a full retreat.

Sensing some shyness and hesitation, we decided to shatter any nervousness right from the start with introductions that combined laughter with light-hearted embarrassment. “Please share your name, where you’re from, and imitate the calling or movements of your favorite animal…” Everyone was shocked and laughed at my absurd suggestion, but then became quietly focused on themselves and their upcoming animal presentation after seeing that I was serious about it. Giggles, outright laughter, some admirations, tons of embarrassing moments, and success! We were bonding and overcoming our social fears, not merely as volunteers and refugees, but more like kids playing and sharing freely in a tree house together. As we went around, it was clear that Mohsen, a new friend from Afghanistan, had by far the best callings out of anyone, and was able to beautifully imitate several animals named in the circle. Now we were ready to dive in further.

A beautiful brother.

“This retreat is a gift to ourselves. It’s a gift to our bodies and minds to deeply rest, to release what we’ve been holding in the city, in our homes, our jobs, our relationships, and in our hearts. The wild beauty of this island, the lulling sounds of the ocean embracing us, and especially the kind and supportive friends around us, all these elements are allowing us to release tension, to let go, and to touch something deeper in ourselves. We may invite ourselves to touch the deep wells of peace, compassion, and spaciousness within us…”

On the one hand, I was used to providing very clear guidance on meditation practice, including upright posture. On the other hand, I felt cautious about overly encouraging anyone to sit or be in a way that felt strange or uncomfortable for them, especially those with different religious and cultural backgrounds. After stopping to breathe for several moments, I settled on a middle way and shared, “Here is the way that some of us here have learned to cultivate peace and joy in our bodies and minds. You are welcome to join us and experiment it yourself. But don’t merely take our word for it. See for yourself what feels comfortable, beneficial, and right for you.”

Mohsen, our friend from Afghanistan, lay back against the couch with his eyes closed, as I slowly coursed into our first guided meditation. The couches were not very supportive for a typical upright position, and already Mohen’s posture looked more conducive to falling asleep than meditating. But we didn’t have proper meditation cushions and our most essential task was to allow him and everyone else to begin feeling deeply comfortable with such raw silent awareness. Cultivating this collective quiet presence was new to him and others, and we wished to enter it slowly, for this doorway would allow us to enter further realms of deep authenticity, contemplation, brotherhood and sisterhood, and genuine transformation together. At least, we hoped.

We sat (or laid against the couch) in quiet stillness together for fifteen minutes, as we guided a basic mindfulness practice focusing on one’s body and breath, touching the simple yet profound joy of being fully present and alive. Whether people were meditating, or passing out on the couch, who could tell?  

Under the surface, our silent candlelit awareness slowly started seeping in, infusing drops of peace and compassion into the skin, muscles, bones, and heart of our newly born Aegina family.

In addition to relaxing and rejuvenating our bodies and spirits, our retreat’s purpose was to learn deeply from one another, especially by encouraging everyone to share about their authentic experiences and needs. Having arrived on a deeper level together, we were ready to begin listening. We invited everyone to give their personal ‘weather report’ in the moment, as well as tell about their intentions for coming to this 4-day retreat. One by one, people spontaneously voiced what was alive for them,  while the rest of us listened deeply. After about an hour, only Mohsen was left. We sat in silence for a few minutes, giving him the space to offer his unique voice. Not wanting to pressure him, I prepared to close the circle, but cautiously asked him a last time. He raised hand slightly and glanced my way in affirmation.

“My whole life I have struggled. I have struggled for so long. Peace, calm, what you speak of – I don’t know what that is. I never knew what that is. Walking in the garden, relaxing, swimming in the ocean, I don’t know what that is. People in my country, they struggle. This is the first time in my life I have tried something like this – meditation. And I really appreciate you for sharing with me.” Mohsen turned to look at me as he spoke. The light was dim in the room, and I could only see the dark shadow over his eyes. Yet his deep dark eyes still conveyed something perfectly to me – the soft intimacy and peace of sharing something precious together. He turned back to the circle, and continued. “I try it now, and I think it helps me.” My heart sank into deep appreciation, knowing that our community was able to offer this young man who has struggled so much of his life, some moments of real peace. Even if it was just a few moments, it was what we had come here for. I felt my chest sigh quietly in relief, as I sensed that our aspirations had already come to fruition, had already realized themselves. Even if this is all we had succeeded in, it was enough and worthy all our efforts to manifest this retreat.

Mohsen dove in further, fearlessly sharing his thoughts with us. “I am living in Athens now with the label of fucking ‘refugee’. I hate that word, that label. First, I am a human being. People don’t know me, don’t know where I’m from and my experiences. I am not just ‘refugee’. They don’t understand me, but they think they do.”

“I have a few friends who are really good – a few. They spend time with me, we go places together, and we have a nice time. Really, they are so great. But they are few compared to the others. The others who aren’t open to me, or don’t say anything to me, even as I say hi and say something to them. But they don’t say anything back, they only talk and spend time with each other.

“What really upsets me, what I hate, is that people think that they’re better than me, better than refugees. The way they talk with me, or don’t talk with me, and how they only spend time with each other, and not with refugees, that upsets me so much. They think they are better than me, and so I work hard, I work so hard all the time to prove that they are not. They are international volunteers but why are there? They do not come to help. I asked them one day, ‘Why are you here?’ And then they say, ‘Oh, for fun.’ For fun? For fun? How can they say that? They think this is fun for them? This is our lives here.”

Mohsen bent his head forward and put his hand near his eyes, covering most of his cheek and eyes. It was difficult to see his face, but we still felt it. As he paused and took in some moments of silence, with our ears and hearts we could still see his eyes and expression in the shadow of his hands.

Light and darkness dance with each other, both in sunsets and in our lives.

After a few minutes, a new tone conveyed clarity and strength, but with the continued pain of exasperation. “Normally, I am not able to say these things, and they build up inside me until I explode. I get upset and then I go drink and then I go talk to them about it when I am drunk. And then people get upset that I talk to them like this. I say that I am talking like this when I am drunk because I am not able to say this to them before. I need to talk about it but I don’t know how… This is very good, talking here with all of you. It’s good for me.” Mohsen’s voice started becoming more relaxed, with hints of gratitude peeking through with a sense of relief. We could feel the storm of his feelings returning to the ocean of calm and clear skies that we typically see in him.

“I am happy that I have this time to spend here with all of you, with open-minded people. For this I am thankful.” Mohsen paused pensively for another moment, before decidedly putting his palms together in front of his chest and deeply bowing to the group to close his sharing.

Mohsen’s words blew us all away. Most of us had just met this young man. And yet, here we were, on this island together, listening to him share some of the deepest sentiments and struggles of his life as a ‘refugee’ in a foreign world. We were volunteers, yet he shared the pain of volunteers in his life; we knew him as a ‘refugee’, yet he shared the pain of living with label; we were mostly white Europeans and Americans, yet he fearlessly opened up our understanding such cultural divisions. Mohsen clearly felt the atmosphere of safety and care in the room grow stronger around him, and he trusted it to embrace him, so that his truths could spread its wings and fly out towards all of us.

The majestic golden eagle, Afghanistan’s national bird; an icon of freedom and strength.

When someone entrusts the sacred gems of their interior world to me, it is one of the most precious gifts in life that I can receive. I later asked Ioan, one of his closest friends and who invited him to attend the retreat, whether he had shared these deep reflections before. Ioan said he was amazed how much Mohsen had shared, how powerful his words were, and that he had never heard him share such sentiments before.

Throughout the next few days, Mohsen fully immersed himself in our retreat. We enjoyed walking meditation in the garden and down to the ocean, sunset meditation at the beach, mindful eating during silent meals, mindful hiking to an ancient olive grove together, writing reflections on the new year, and another sharing circle. The longer we spent together, the less we remembered who was ‘volunteer’ or who was ‘refugee’. We were all just kids playing on this island together, just boys and girls touching moments of joy, peace, and freedom together. Perhaps we were all refugees fleeing from the chaos of city-life, and we were all volunteers, continuously gifting and serving each other in various ways to make the retreat possible.

One of the many moments that stood out the most during our retreat was watching Mohsen’s determination one morning to cook us a traditional Afghani meal. The night before Mohsen left the retreat a day earlier than us, he expressed an unshakeable wish to offer us a gift from his homeland. Mohsen awoke earlier than everyone else and started the long process of sautéing eggplants, cooking rice, preparing eggs, and crafting the secret sauces of his land ancestors.

With our backpacks filled with both Greek and Afghanistan delights, we set off together for our hike on New Years Eve.

We hiked that day to an ancient olive grove, where trees had nourished former monastic communities in a sacred valley up to two thousand years ago. The great grandmother olive trees were not only the perfect inspiration for our reflections together, but also for our special New Years eve Afghani meal. We sat between these beautiful ancient beings, and relished Mohsen’s offerings. Not only was the meal uniquely delicious, but we savored Mohsen’s happiness as he offered us all a true taste of his homeland. With each bite of mouth-watering eggplant in sweet yogurt sauce, we were instantly transported from this Greek island to the roaming hills of Afghanistan. If listening deeply to Mohsen share his struggles was like the rain soaking into the earth and seeds, then offering his homeland meal was like the sunshine pouring down upon his blooming flowers.

Behind the camera, Mohsen captures us rejoicing over the feast.

Mohsen made it clear to us that our retreat together on the island meant the world to him. The night he left, we had a big hugging circle around him, and he kept sharing with everyone how much, ‘I fucking appreciate you all and this time!’. Had he bloomed among us?  Or was it us who had bloomed because of him? Perhaps it was true friendship who bloomed instead, revealing her brilliant petals and sweet fragrance to all of us. Yes, true friendship, with her timeless blossoms of inclusivity, compassion, and joy.

Because of the magical diversity of our group, this was one of most amazing retreats that we had ever organized, and Mohsen’s presence in our circle was perhaps the biggest treasure. It allowed those of us who had never been refugees, to see the world through his eyes, and receive the lessons he had to offer. The extent to which his genuine story will help and guide us in our continued work as volunteers cannot be overestimated.

Bringing people together from different worldviews is a catalyst for even greater transformation in our lives and maturity in our worldview. Our deep wish is to have another retreat in the future, with more migrants from abroad, Greeks, and international volunteers coming together to practice peace, and share our unique gifts with each other.

With blue sky, rocks to climb on, great friends, and a fresh smile on our hearts, what more could we ask for?

Special thanks to our kind and generous hearted Sangha friends who had offered scholarship funds for this special New Years retreat in Greece. (Especially Elli & Rob, Anne Woods, David Percival, and Sue Rempel. Your support was the last condition for us to bloom). Thank you!


Enjoy a few more photos to taste the many flavors of our Sangha retreat...

With 2,000 year old Great-Grandmother Oak behind us, what more inspiration could we ask for to reflect deeply this New Years?

Sangha sunset meditation on Aegina…

Sangha Family!

A mindful lunch together…

 And the 5 year old children within us were set free!!!…



Jasmine Rising from a Sea of Fire

Jasmine Flower Rising from a Sea of Fire 

 Part 3 of the Greece Sangha Service Series

December, 2017

We were in the middle of mindfully savouring our silent dinner, when I caught Mohammad’s text that he was nearby outside. I quietly stepped outside to greet him downstairs. Watching him walk down the street towards us with his approaching smile, I felt both relief and elation that he was able to finally join us despite the short notice of our holiday plans. “Hello David!”  I gave him a big hug, returned his smile, and said, “Hi Mohammad, I’m so glad that you could make it! We’re happy to have you join us.”  Riding up in the elevator, I asked him, “Do you know about Thanksgiving?” “Oh yes, it’s in the movies”, he said with both sincerity and a touch of humor. “Haha, yes, that’s true, it’s in the movies. Well, it’s a very important holiday for us in the States.”

But this wasn’t just any Thanksgiving – it was also an occasion for the few us Americans to royally treat our fellow European, African, and Syrian friends to a special evening together. Most of us had come to Athens a few months prior to live together as a mindfulness intentional community of volunteers serving in refugee camps and community centers. Our American trio wished share the best of our homeland culture with our Athens family, infusing the holiday with not only delicious food, but also deep friendship, moments of silence, and gratitude sharings.

Vanessa and I were preparing almost the entire day. After a busy morning of shopping apart, we looked at each other, a bit weary and disheveled, and Vanessa pleaded, “I want to meditate for a bit before cooking.” “Ahhh, you speak my mind as well, let’s sit for at least 15.” Even though we had loads to prepare before everyone arrived, we took our time and started off our big kitchen day with peace and joy. Lighting some incense and a candle, we settled into a relaxed seated position, quietly tuning into each other and each breath. After 15 minutes of heavenly relief, Vanessa invited the bell, and we slowly, and mindfully moved from the hall to the kitchen.

Candlelight and calligraphy adorn our altar and illuminate our minds.

Vanessa lit some incense again, reminding us that the kitchen was also meditation hall, and the chopping boards our sutras, where we could place our loving attention into each dish as a gift to our family. Meanwhile, Mercia shook her magic wand around the house, transforming our dining room with white candlelight, an array of white flowers, fresh rosemary branches fanning around the table, and several persimmons infusing warmth and bright joy between them all.

One of the sweetest moments earlier in the evening was our silent meal. Typical thanksgiving feasts can be fun but also loud and socially exhausting. We infused the holiday with our ways of peace, gratitude, and attentiveness to the subtle miracles of our lives. After a meal blessing and some guidance about mindful eating, we invited a bell and began eating in silence together. After cooking for several hours, and with so many us together in a festive spirit, the quiet power of us all together was the tastiest dish I could have asked for. Although it was a different experience for our new friends, there is something universally precious and satisfying about silence. Together, we relished every morsel and moment together.

Throughout the evening, the mood was light and celebratory, especially because of our two guests of honor: Bara, Leonie’s friend from Senegal, and Mohammad. Besides myself, only Dermot, a fully gregarious and generous Irishman in our mindfulness community had met Mohammad. We both had wonderful encounters with Muhammad at the community center for refugees, and were excited for him to join us. This was the first time at our apartment and we had no idea how rare this experience was for him.

“One love”, from Dermot and Bara

As he sat down with us, I brought Mohammad a non-alcoholic specialty that Vanessa and I made for our holiday occasion. Sparkling bubbles rose up through pomegranate juice and seeds, and a slice of citrus, as I amiably offered him a goblet. A few friends started asking questions with smiles and open-eyed curiosity. As appreciative as was for their sweet and open-minded intentions to greet Mohammad and know him better, inevitable discomforts arose as I watched our different universes slowly colliding. Normal social intros take on different meaning in such circumstances.

“How long have you been in Athens, Mohammad?” “Just two months already.” “Oh, two months, and where did you come from?”  “I’m from Syria.” A short silent pause. Yes, they expected the answer, but the response still carries its share of untold stories of war and limitless hardship underneath, and in this case, as recent as September. “And where in Syria do you come from?”  Another politely habitual question… “Aleppo.”  Another short silent pause. Again, it’s a typical response as there are thousands of Syrians from Aleppo, like Mohammad, living in Athens. Nonetheless, images of white concrete rubble extending for miles and miles flutter in and out of our consciousness as we continue to converse.

Aleppo, the largest city in Syria, after several years of war.

Here we were, enjoying a typical holiday meal, ready to share our deepest gratitudes, in an air of lightness, ease, and joy, as our guests of honor join us from different worlds. How do we hold our two worlds together? How to bridge the oceanic gaps between us? Perhaps we already were.

I serve Mohammad some of my and Vanessa’s favorite vegan Thanksgiving dishes: a plate of homemade mashed potatoes and mushroom gravy, coconut curry squash stew with roasted chickpeas, and beets in balsamic and orange zest sauce. Vanessa humorously explains our search for cranberry sauce, which was nonexistent in Athens. Mohammad smiles at me warmly as I serve him, and I see that there is peace and gratitude in his eyes. The conversation continued.

Mohammad carried an air of respect, ease, and a subtle confidence built of trust while sitting and conversing with us throughout the evening. He was displaced from his homeland, but I could sense his deep rootedness and strength as he conversed. His english was imperfect, but his voice and intentions were heard clearly; he showed little or no embarrassment or shyness when asking for clarity or explaining that he could not understand our thick accented Irish brothers. In one sense, he was a stranger among us; but in another, we were the strangers in this new land, and learning deeply about his world.

Syrians regard jasmine as their national flower. Here, a branch of jasmine blooms with Damascus in the background.

The conversation naturally grew lighter, as he and Dermot joked about what American shows he watched to learn English while growing up in Syria. Our friends gradually learned that Muhammad was a young doctor, having just finished med school training, merely months before fleeing Aleppo and arriving in Athens. He was from a well to do family in Syria who provided him with excellent values and education throughout his life. But virtually no one, especially from Aleppo was able to escape the devastation. His family had lost nearly everything except their lives as they fled to Turkey. His 18 year old brother escaped to Germany two years ago and Mohammad had been trying to arrive there with him as well, but that road had been blocked multiple times and he was struggling to find another way through. Even a young and talented doctor, fully educated, versed in multiple languages, bright, handsome, of wealthy background, and of upright bearing – even one this blessed was searching to find a path forward in the aftermath.

We were thrilled that Mohammad could celebrate Thanksgiving with us, and revelled in all its novelties, including his first taste of apple pie, which he had also only previously known from the movies. While Mohammad was clearly enjoying his pie quietly, I watched him pause for a few moments in reflection. Then with an almost giddy smile, he shared something with us. “This is the first time I have been with non-Arabic people.” We all looked at him, as our eyes lit up, our mouths opened wide in awe. “Wows” and “Ahas” erupted among us, as our hands went in the air in celebratory exclamation. I had expected for this to be Mohammad’s first Thanksgiving ever, but I had never considered that it might be his first gathering with non-arabic people. That is, his first meal with white people. “What an honor for us to have you here, Mohammad! We get to share this special moment with you, and what a privilege!”  Hearing this news greatly increased how special the evening felt for all of us.

Francie expresses a beaming smile and happiness across the dinner table as we share Thanksgiving.

A lively and joyful conversation ensued for some time, and would have easily lasted the entire evening as well if we had wanted. But we really wished to bring out the very best of our tradition, so I invited a bell and transitioned us ahead. “It’s a custom for many of us and our families back home in the States, that on this special holiday, we take time to share our gratitudes for this life: our precious friendships, nourishing and delicious food, our health and family, the gorgeous blue sky, our beloved community, and so on. We have so much to be thankful for. Sharing such blessings with each other makes them feel more real in our lives, and even increases their abundance. Tonight, this evening is made even more special as we have the presence of two special guests of honor: Bara and Mohammad. Thank you for being here dear brothers, for receiving the specialness of our holiday, and blessing our evening with your presence.”

We went around the table, each of us reflecting on our deepest gratitudes at this period of our lives. It was so moving to hear everyone share, but it was our guests of honor who really captured our deepest attention and awe.

After a few moments of silence between us and the glowing candles glowing between us, Bara jumped in, speaking bravely before the rest of us. Offering his respect and enthusiasm, Bara stood up while beginning to share. “Thank you for welcoming me so beautifully with you tonight. The food is really so good, wow, yes so delicious. And now I asked Leonie about maybe becoming a vegetarian.” Everyone laughed out loud with him while also hearing his sincerity, knowing his strong preferences for non-vegetarian dishes. Bara continued English, while filling in gaps in French, his more fluent tongue next to native Senegalese dialect. “But seriously, I really appreciate this beautiful time with all of you. I have not felt such lightness and ease and peace in my heart as I feel tonight in some many years.” We all dropped into a deep listening silence as he spoke. “The silence and energy here and your presence is very healing for me. And I feel you are all my brothers and sisters. Yes, truly. Because in our world, it really means something when we see past colors, and it’s not just about being black and white…”  Bara’s words quickly became emotional and he stopped speaking in mid sentence. “I’m sorry, I need to go outside now. Please excuse me”. We encouraged Bara to take his time and enjoy the fresh air as he stepped outside.

Although we didn’t understand completely what arose for Bara, we felt the pain in his heart that was able to spontaneously emerge from the depths of his gratitude. This pain was able to surface safely amidst the presence of our deep listening, and his uplifting words of gratitude. Being in the presence of a group of white friends, we represented all the wealthy European and North American countries which over decades, forbade him and his native brothers from entering our lands and working alongside us. While sensitive to his pain, we were comforted by his words that healing and peace was taking place within him, in the midst of our fellowship. One by one, throughout the rest of the evening, Bara conveyed his heartfelt gratitude and joy to each of us, illustrating with his big smile and intimate eyes how dearly he enjoyed the evening. With childish enthusiasm, he promised that soon enough, he would be treating us all to a proper Senegalese feast as well.

The following week, Bara offered us a Senegalese dish, West African nut stew. (Delicious!)

Again, silence returned amidst flickering candlelight around white blossoms and bold persimmons, as we waited for the next person to share. “Okay, I’ll go.”  Following the form that he had seen, Mohammed put his hands together in front of his chest and bent his chest in a slight bow forward. As if to remove anything blocking his throat, he projected his voice firmly and clearly.

“The war destroyed everything for us.” He paused, half nodding to affirm his reality, as our ears lit up to receive his powerful sharing. “Yes, we lost everything.  During that whole time and since I have come here to Greece, I have never felt such peace as I feel here with you.” I felt both startled by the power of his statement, as well as moved for his depth of his gratitude in this moment. The directness of his eyes and openness of his words towards each us held nothing back. “It’s so nice to be here with you. The food has been delicious, and your hospitality is remarkable. I want to thank all of you for inviting me and being so warm and open. It is very special for me to know all of you.” Then he stopped and paused for a moment before continuing. “If it weren’t for the war, then I would never have been able to be here tonight and know all of you.” Mohammad looked like he was full of emotion, as if he hadn’t even conceived that that would come out. We all just sat there in pure silence, half-amazed, and half-processing the power and meaning of his words. Hearing him speak about both the war in his country and his gratitude for our friendship was like watching a jasmine flower rise from a sea of fire.

Who knew? Who of us knew that sharing sharing a simple yet heartfelt holiday dinner from our homeland in a spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood, filled with moments of silence, and in an atmosphere of acceptance and gratitude… who knew that such simple gifts could offer such radical happiness and healing for each other? It’s so simple. And yet, so powerful. If we have a community that can do this together, then we are beyond lucky. A community that is able to offer warmth, friendliness, the peace of shared silence, simple nourishing foods, deep listening, and an openness to gratitude – these are the precious gifts that so many of us have been waiting for in our lives. If we have such gifts, then we can embrace many people, including others, and heal wounds that may be buried in our hearts for many years.

Now, we are already planning out our Christmas and New Year’s gatherings – new occasions to embrace and celebrate each other with more friends.

Thanksgiving dinner together, shortly before Mohammad arrived.